Bihar’s devastating floods this year will be remembered for many things. The scale of human misery. Blaming it on the stars. Who can easily forget Union minister of state for health and family welfare Ashwini Choubey’s remark: “The downpour, which has been lashing Bihar for the past few days, is because of the Hathiya Nakshatra, during which sometimes there is very heavy rainfall. The rains have now taken the form of a natural disaster.” Then there is that vivid photograph of deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi and his family members being rescued on a boat from his flooded residence in Patna, which will surely go down as one of the defining images of urban India as it seeks to cope with erratic and unpredictable weather, one telling effect of climate change.
The number of floods in India have been steadily rising — 90 in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2015, up from 67 in the 10 years between 1996 and 2005, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The death toll due to floods is also going up.
As we know, from visuals on our television screens, ordinary people in Patna, Bihar’s capital city, and home to over two million people, have been at the receiving end of immense suffering in recent days. Many used lifeboats to escape heavily waterlogged homes. Although the rains appear to have stopped, large parts of the city, especially the low-lying areas, remained submerged, with schools and shops shut.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Dr Ravikant Singh of Doctors for You, a medical charity, spoke about about how his team had rescued the head of the department of surgery of the Patna Medical College and Hospital from a private hospital which had been under flood waters. The medical charity also rescued a mother and a one-day-old baby from the hospital, which had no electricity and water. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and state disaster relief personnel are stepping up efforts. However, there are humongous challenges that lie ahead.
Patna has been among the worst hit but the arc of suffering goes far beyond. Many other parts of Bihar have been battered by the floods. Torrential and late monsoon rains have killed over 140 people in northern India alone; hospitals and schools remain inundated with dirty rainwater.
As the waters recede, Patna and other flood-battered areas would have to be prepared for water-borne diseases.
But the distressing images coming out of Patna should not distract us from the important and uncomfortable questions we need to ask.
This is the time when we are also faced with a critical choice.
We can either go with the argument that this is just “nature’s fury”, that floods happen elsewhere too, including in the United States of America, as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar just reminded us, or we can recognise that climate change makes the likelihood of such “nature’s fury” events more frequent and at unexpected times, and deep-dive into all the acts of omission and commission that are exacerbating the problem.
In short, we can choose to be in a state of denial and hold only “nature” responsible for the mess, or we can ask ourselves tough questions.
First, some facts. There is no arguing that India recorded its highest rainfall this monsoon since 1994, and that rainfall in many parts of the country has been above normal till date. We also know that more than more than 4,000 people were rescued from the flood-affected areas of Patna in recent days and that Bihar is often called India’s most flood-prone state, with 76 per cent of the population, especially in North Bihar, living under the recurring threat of floods. In 1975, devastating floods struck Patna. And now once again.
But all this does not take away from the fact that many actions and non-actions are adding to the vulnerability of cities like Patna which are calamity prone.
It is time to evaluate the performance of existing flood-control measures and ask why so many of India’s cities are being hit so hard by floods. It is time to ask tough questions about the state of the drainage system in the flood-battered cities, on the rampant encroachment that is happening, the water bodies that are being clogged up by new buildings, the unplanned urbanisation, the humongous corruption in local authorities which makes much of all this possible and the state of disaster preparedness of local administrations in the time of frequent and unpredictable weather, including floods.
Local disaster experts in Bihar say that state disaster management plan has not been updated in the past four years. Bihar has a civil defence network, but it is reportedly cash-strapped and short of human resources. Only four out of Bihar’s 38 administrative districts reportedly have functional civil defence networks.
Patna’s policymakers could learn from Chennai, which was devastated by floods just a few years ago. As flood experts tell is, one important reason for floods wreaking havoc in villages, rural areas as well as cities is the fact that overflow, consequent to a rise in water levels in rivers, does not find adequate diversionary channels.
In India’s rapidly expanding cities, this is taking a horrific form. Unplanned urbanisation combined with rampant greed are leading to land reclamation in the most unscientific manner. As environmental experts have pointed out many times, in Bihar itself, while the levels of the Ganga and Kosi surged, stormwater channels have been found to be clogged with plastics. Anyone familiar with Indian cities also knows how the massive illegal construction on riverbanks and encroachments have taken over existing wetlands and flood plains that could have stemmed the surge of flood waters to some extent.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs stated in its 31-page report on the Chennai floods that “encroachment of lakes and riverbeds and faulty town planning are the major causes for the havoc”.
It is tempting to blame “nakshatra” for our earthly troubles. But as Patna and many other Indian cities show, it would be wiser in the long run to heed what Shakespeare had said hundreds of years ago. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
In contemporary idiom, that means not letting public attention be diverted from the tough questions that need to be asked here and now.